| By Kathleen Atkins |
Almost everyone has friends or family who forward urban legends or political tall tales to their entire contacts lists — and many exasperated recipients have considered closing whole e-mail accounts to stop the flow of that frequently annoying communication.
If you feel moved to action, here’s a way to combat inflations, distortions, and untruths — responsibly — within your personal network (or for a broader audience): research those claims and send the facts back to your bad-news correspondents.
Sorting through floods of misinformation
As the saying goes, you’re entitled to your own opinion — but you’re not entitled to your own facts. Yet every day, millions of false claims circulate the world in e-mail messages. Some of those messages undoubtedly find their way into your mailbox because you, like most people, hesitate to classify e-mail from uncle Harry or former college-roommate Rachel as spam. If you’d like to set the record straight (rather than simply sending the misguided mail to the trash), you have numerous Internet fact-finding tools at hand.
This article points you toward some of the most highly regarded research tools available on the Web. But first, a couple of words about Web browsers and search engines.
A universal repository for what we know
The importance of Web browsers and search engines is almost too obvious to mention. Browsers are our gateway to the Web, and search engines help point us toward data we’re looking for. But I’ll talk about these two apps a bit anyway, because they have radically changed our access to information.
Since 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee invented a rudimentary information-retrieval system he called the WorldWideWeb, it has revolutionized data storage and retrieval. During these 20-odd years, the Internet has transformed old information systems and created entirely new industries and disciplines. Millions of documents and videos, and billions of bits of data, are uploaded to Web servers every day. In the most recent example of this rapid evolution, the publisher of Encyclopaedia Britannica announced it’s going completely digital. The company will no longer sell print versions of this venerable reference once found in every library and school and in many homes.
If you grew up doing research by going to libraries and hunting through card catalogs to find your local library’s relevant reference materials, you know that conducting digital searches is a miracle of convenience. But you also know that using Internet search engines, such as Google and Bing, is not the same as opening up a library card file, that once-basic reference tool. Simply put, search engines gather information by crawling through websites and indexing what they find. Keywords are the entry points for those massive indexes, and learning how to use keywords effectively gives us the most productive search results.